By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(Nov. 15, 2018) The Young Audiences program, begun in Baltimore, may bill itself as “the nation’s largest arts education network,” but its impact locally has been in Berlin.
The nonprofit group recently sent artist Amanda Pellerin to Buckingham Elementary School there to work with students on a massive mural project made from pieces of clay.
Pellerin started working with the medium when she was 15 years old and planned to be a potter. She was working as an artist in Baltimore and teaching at colleges and community centers when a representative from Young Audiences called to ask for her help with a difficult project.
After that, “They said, could we hire you to do this work? And so that was the beginning of transferring into this doing this full time,” Pellerin said. “And when I started doing this work, I found it really engaging and powerful.”
At Buckingham during the last several weeks, Pellerin has helped first and second graders use patterns and a stylus to trace and cut out clay birds, which are then painted and fired in a kiln.
“They’ve been learning about those processes, and then they’re using color resources to look and then interpret how they paint their own pieces,” she said.
Third and fourth graders are drawing the originals and then carving them out of clay.
“They have a much longer time with me, so we had the time to brainstorm and really research. They use their Chromebooks to look at pictures or to project, and they’re working on [things like] the buildings in Berlin,” she said. “We had discussions and they said, ‘These are the things that we think are important and these are the things that we see.’
“There’s a lot of bunnies and squirrels, and then there’s the Atlantic Hotel and the [Island] Creamery – the iconic sort of places,” Pellerin added.
The overall theme is community, she said.
“We’ve been talking about … when we’re showing all these pictures of things, how do we also show our values?” she said. “It’s interesting to me that we’re getting into the meat of the artwork and not just, ‘this is fun, we’re killing time.’ We’re talking about what is clay and where does it come from, and that it’s a natural resource and then what happens inside of a kiln? It changes state of matter, so there’s some of the chemistry background of clay, which is so interesting to me.”
There are also science lessons in the clay carvings of birds, she said, from their physiology to their habitats.
“Why does this owl look like the bark of a tree? There’s a reason,” she said. “It’s just so yummy when their eyes light up and they’re like, ‘I get it!’ And you see this transformation.
“And then there are times when I hear a kid say, ‘I didn’t know I was an artist.’ So, it’s really, really cool. That’s definitely what keeps me hooked, is the relationship with the students and just knowing that they can see themselves in a different way when they do this kind of work,” Pellerin added.
Mary Ann Moniodis, a second-grade teacher at Buckingham, said the project has given students an opportunity to learn about birds in a way that fits into the curriculum.
“We’re exploring the different kinds and types of birds and we compare them, which is a big skill and something we work on in second grade,” she said. “It’s also allowed them to be creative and to use their hands. We don’t really get a lot of time to paint here in the classroom or to do really creative things, because our day is so busy, so this is a really nice break for them.”
Students were separated into small groups and many worked with children they might not know very well.
“It gave them a chance to pair up with kids that they don’t normally do that with,” Moniodis said. “So, there’s new partnerships, and there’s science and art. It’s just one of those great opportunities that we don’t get to do in our everyday schedule.”
Buckingham art teacher Melissa Reid said students benefited by working with an unfamiliar art medium, and that Pellerin had a gift of engaging the students throughout the process.
“We don’t have a kiln at Buckingham,” Reid said. “So, they get to work in a totally different medium that they don’t get a chance to work with, and [Pellerin] is someone who is so engaging and excited and invested.”
She said the images she’s seen so far provide striking visual representations of the town, from the Calvin B. Taylor House Museum on Main Street, to the basketball hoops at Dr. William Henry Park on Flower Street.
“We’ve really worked hard to incorporate the kids’ own experiences of Berlin,” Reid said. “I would say they’ve really got a lot of different connections in this process.”
Reid said Pellerin would come back in December to finish putting the mural together. She hopes to schedule a community reception for the finished piece at some point next month.
The Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore and the Maryland State Art’s Council provided funding for the project, and the school is seeking an additional grant, Reid said. The Taylor House Museum helped provide historical images for the project and the Harrison Group has provided a hotel room for Pellerin.
“Lots of people have been involved in making this happen,” Reid said.